Advancing a Free Society

The disparities of disparate impact

Monday, March 19, 2012

Is there a racist behind every tree in the American education forest? That’s the spin a lot of people have given to last week’s massive trove of federal data on school discipline and sundry other topics. “Black students face more harsh discipline” headlined the New York Times. “Minority students face harsher punishments,” quoth the Associated Press. “An educational caste system”stormed the head of the country’s largest coalition of civil-rights groups. The federal data (from 2009-10) cover a multitude of issues but what caught most eyes was the finding that black and Latino students are suspended or expelled from school in numbers greater than their shares of the overall pupil population. “The undeniable truth,” declared Education Secretary Arne Duncan, “is that the everyday educational experience for many students of color violates the principle of equity at the heart of the American promise.” Declaring that the new data paint “a very disturbing picture,” Assistant Secretary (for Civil Rights) Russlynn Ali proudly informed the media that her office has “launched 14 large-scale investigations into disparate discipline rates across the country.” Ponder the phrase: disparate discipline rates. This arises from the doctrine of “disparate impact,” a sly phrase coined as a means of boosting civil rights in the realm of employment law. It means, in effect, that discrimination may be afoot—and enforcement called for—whenever a seemingly neutral or universal policy gives rise to disparities (by race, gender, etc.) in whatever benefit or harm that policy leads to. But it’s by no means limited to employment any longer. At the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), the enforcers hunt for disparities in sundry realms of education from college admissions to Advanced Placement course access, as well as discipline and more. If they find that something good or bad isn’t getting bestowed across the entire eligible population in proportion to the basic demographics of that population, they sense “disparate impact” at work, which is invariably accompanied by at least a hint that discrimination must be the cause of it. Continue reading Chester Finn…

(photo credit: alex yosifov)